A fall in demand and a workforce shortage — both byproducts of the coronavirus pandemic— are bedeviling New Mexico’s chile farmers and distributors at a time of year when they should be reveling in their harvest.
Arguably the state’s most identifiable product, chile takes center stage toward the end of the summer. But New Mexico Green Chile Association Executive Director Joram Robbs estimated up to 70 percent of the green chile harvested in the state is typically sold to restaurants, where demand has at least been cut in half during the pandemic.
The industry, whose product has been threatened by drought and excessive heat in addition to the challenges presented by COVID-19, also typically relies on seasonal workers between August and October.
Robbs said that workforce — which numbers around 500 during most summers — has been halved.
“On the farm side, they can’t get their chile out fast enough due to a labor shortage. Chile has a pretty small window when it’s green and can be picked,” Robbs said. “And on the processing side, we might have an abundance of chile at a processing facility that typically would be sold to restaurants.”
Glen Duggins, who grows more than 50 acres of green and red chile in Lemitar, a small town near Socorro, said he typically employs 15 pickers each season who make $3 per every roughly 32-pound sack of chile.
“A good picker, say a 30-year-old man, can make $1,000 a week,” said Duggins, president of the New Mexico Green Chile Association.
Duggins, who lost most of his crop last season in a hailstorm, said he has only been able to employ two pickers. Meanwhile, more than half his business typically goes to supplying eight Sprouts Farmers Market stores in the state, which along with Walmart are not roasting fresh green chile this summer, said state Secretary of Agriculture Jeff Witte.
In Santa Fe, Whole Foods and Albertsons stores are still roasting fresh green chile.
“A lot of places have said they’re not going to roast because they don’t want to cause a gathering,” Witte said. “That’s going to effect of how chile is sold as a lot of people don’t want to go through the hassle of roasting at home.”
While restaurant demand has dropped, chile farmers and distributors have had to switch their focus to selling directly to consumers or to grocery stores. Witte said the pandemic has highlighted how the state’s agricultural infrastructure could shift to directly connecting with consumers.
“We are a nation that could access any food product any time no matter what, and all of a sudden COVID-19 took some of that away. That has proven there is a strong demand for locally grown food that is accessible and fresh,” Witte said. “And beyond that, agriculture is a game of connections, so my department has worked with stores all across the state and the county to sell our chile everywhere.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over 63,000 tons of chile worth $50 million was harvested in New Mexico in 2019, down from over 119,000 tons in 2009.